16 October 2022

Henna Tattoos: Exquisite, Impermanent Stains

Henna has been used since ancient times as a dye to color fabrics such as wool, leather and silk. Yet at some early point in its shared history with humanity it was discovered that it could be used to stain the skin temporarily. Ancient wall paintings discovered during the excavation of Akrotiri (destroyed by volcanic eruption in 1627 BCE) show women adorned with patterns and designs wholly consistent with henna on their nails, palms and soles. It is a tradition still thriving and evolving today.

No one is quite sure where henna was first used to adorn the body: it may be that the tradition arose in a number of places at virtually the same time. Yet its use in antiquity was widespread: from the marketplaces of Rome to the riverboats of the Nile, from the Horn of Africa and the vast sweep of the Arabian Peninsula, in to the Near East and South Asia, henna was used to ornament and to decorate the body for ceremonial and religious purposes. Bridal henna nights remain an important tradition in many of these places and as large diaspora grow around the world, the practice is spreading. The effect can be astonishing – real works of art albeit fleeting, temporary ones - and not always on the places you would immediately imagine!

One has to wonder who the first person was to discover these staining properties. To start with, Henna is the only species in the Lawsonia genus. The leaves contain Lawsone which is red-orange dye.

Yet, henna does not stain the skin unless the lawsone is released and this involves the leaves being smashed with any mildly acidic liquid (such as strong tea).

Then it must be made it to a paste which is applied to the skin. Could the whole process have been discovered by a single individual or was it through a series of revelations through processes of trial and era over generations?

Image Credit Flickr User Harsh 1.0
Image Credit Flickr User mehlam786
Image Credit Flickr User mehlam786
The paste is a vital element in the henna tattoo process. It is next to impossible to create patterns effectively from simply crushed leaves so they are dried and milled then sold as a powder, This is then mixed with a mildly acidic liquid (an alternative to strong tea would be lemon juice) until it has the consistency of toothpaste.

Image Credit Flickr User mehlam786
Image Credit Flickr User mehlam786
Image Credit Flickr User Niyantha
The application of the paste to ensure a good stain takes practice and patience. Over some time the lawsone migrate from the paste to the skin, binding to the proteins in it.

Many different tools are used to apply it, from cones to syringes to simply fingers. If left on for just a few minutes and then removed there will only be a light stain. For the optimum stain the paste has to be left on the skin for several hours – but it needs attention.

Image Credit Flickr User Hiral Henna
Image Credit Flickr User Joy of Henna
Image Credit Flickr User Joy of Henna
Left to its own devices the paste will dry and drop off in bits – which will mean that the final stain will be dark in some areas and lighter in others – not the desired effect at all. So often the paste is sealed down by the application of a mix (made from sugar and lemon) on to the paste. It can also be done by applying some form of sugar to the paste itself – and many believe this adds to the final color of the stain. After a few hours the paste is scraped off the skin, leaving the stain behind.

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Image Credit Flickr User Henna by Heather
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At first, the tattoo appears orange in color but this will darken over the next few days. As the palms of the hand and the soles of the feet have the thickest layer of skin for the lawsone to penetrate, these will last the longest. After some time the henna will gradually fade as natural exfoliation and cleansing takes place.

Image Credit Flickr User Wendy Feldmann
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Image Credit Flickr User Elaine
Today, henna does not necessarily appear in the traditional places - or in the traditional ways.

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However, the earliest textual reference to henna being used to mark women as they prepare to meet their husbands is over three thousand years old. Historically, the Night of the Henna was a significant point in the life of a young woman and was a tradition followed by most people in the places where henna grew naturally. Jews, Muslims, Sikhs, Hindus, Christians and Zoroastrians all signified an oncoming wedding by decorating the bride (and sometimes even the groom) with henna.

Image Credit Flickr User Bindhi Mehndi
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Henna was and is also applied during important religious events such as Eid, Diwali and Passover. In fact, henna was used for a hugely diverse number of reasons. If you were victorious in battle – henna. If it was your birthday – henna. If you were about to be circumcised – henna. The tradition of applying henna even extends to favorite animals such as horses and donkeys which would have their hooves hennaed. Where there was a celebration and henna was available, it would be used.

Image Credit Flickr User NYHenna
Image Credit Flickr User NYHenna
Image Credit Flickr User NYHenna
Today the fashion of Bridal Mehndi (as henna is known in India and Pakistan) is highly popular and the art of the henna tattoo continues to evolve in both its intricacy and embellishment: you could say it is entering its glittery era. New novelties are now proliferating, from glitter and gliding to the line work becoming finer and finer. The art of the henna tattoo is - in all its many forms and traditions - here for good.

Image Credit Flickr User Hiral Henna
Image Credit Flickr User NYHenna
First Image Credit Flickr User Henna Sooq
Henna Cones by Henna Sooq